The beginning of October was Mental Health Awareness week. This week aims to both spread awareness of mental health issues and encourage those affected to talk about them. While music has always featured sadness as one of its main themes, it’s rare for an artist to talk about depression as frankly as Kendrick Lamar has on his latest album.
To start things off, To Pimp a Butterfly is masterful in delivery. Kendrick Lamar crafted an album that stands with The Blueprint, Illmatic, and The Chronic as one of the great hip-hop records of the past 20 years. Themes of identity politics, institutionalised racism and the struggle to strive are intricately woven together lyrically and supported by a flowing mix of free form jazz and funk.
At the 2015 Grammy Awards, Lamar’s song i, the penultimate song on To Pimp A Butterfly, received the award for Best Rap Song. Together with u, it tells the story of his struggle with depression. A story of survivor’s guilt and internal inadequacy, u revolves around the hook: “loving you is complicated.” The line is repeated, as Kendrick’s inner voice berates him over and over.
Lamar’s u isn’t the first song to feature depression and nor is he the first artist to draw on suicidal thoughts for inspiration. One of the most famous cases of this is Ian Curtis. The Joy Division singer’s lyrics were known for being incredibly morose. This is obvious if the first few lines of Love Will Tear Us Apart are read aloud;
“When routine bites hard,
and ambitions are low,
and resentment rides high
but emotions won’t grow.”
In her book ‘So This is Permanence’ Ian Curtis’s widow said: “his lyrics were so dark. So very dark. You just think, ‘How come he couldn’t talk to somebody about it?’” Ian Curtis took his own life aged 23.
Curtis’ inability to discuss his problems contrasts with Lamar entirely. In interviews about the album he has been forthcoming and open about his struggles with depression. He asks if he can use these struggles in a positive way. “Positive for me is showing what I go through, what I’ve been through … but that I still love myself at the end of the day.”
This forms the basis of i and the counterpoint to u. Kendrick’s story tells those suffering from depression that while loving yourself is complicated, it is the key to getting through and living with depression. This, combined with his openness on the topic, makes him a prime example of what the mental health week set out to promote; awareness and courage in the face of adversity.